Feire Anelida and Fals Arcite: Oppositions and Oxymorons BY YEONG MIN KIM October 23, 2009
With the subtitle, “The Compleynt of feire Anelida and fals Arcite,” Chaucer’s Anelida and Arcite forthrightly presents two opposing ideas with the juxtaposition of the words “feire” and “fals.” The narrative of the poem then proceeds to build a portrait of contrast between the moral characters of the “laurer corouned” (24) “noble prince Theseus” (45) and the “lusty knight” (86) Arcite, thereby building upon the subtitle’s conspicuous play of opposites. This idea of opposites at play becomes especially pronounced and augmented in the “compleynt” of Anelida. And it is through this ongoing textual tug-ofwar that Anelida struggles to find a stable balance amidst the chaos and contradictions of her romantic emotions. In the first stanza of Proem of the compleynt, Anelida states that the “swerd of sorowe, ywhet with fals pleasaunce” (212) has “thirleth” (211) “[her] herte, [which is] bare of blis and blak of hewe” (213). The alliteration and word sequencing in “bare of blis and blak” (213) creates an interesting textual friction: “Bare,” brings about negative connotations; “blis,” on the other hand, conveys a favorable interpretation; “blak,” in turn, possesses negative associations. This succession of opposing concepts seems to mirror the frustration and emotional seesawing that Anelida is experiencing. Also hinting at Anelida’s psychological turbulence is “fals pleasaunce”(212)- an expression that is somewhat at odds with itself- and also her statement that “turned is in quakyng al [her] daunce” (214) and “[her] surete in awhaped countenaunce” (214). The aforementioned statement involves concepts
transforming into their opposites or negative equivalents. The structural and textual tension that is present in the passage seems to echo the unstable and inconsistent nature of love. The transmutability and inconsistency of the human heart is again is demonstrated when Anelida calls Arcite her “swete foo” (272). Her referral to Arcite as her “swete foo” is oxymoronic, as “swete” and “foo” are in conflict with one another. The conflict, however, not only lies within the textual level, but also within flow of the stanza as a whole. As mentioned previously, Anelida begins the stanza with the “swete,” which is subsequently brought down to a “foo.” She then fires a series of enraged questions and complaints that clearly condemn the deceitful Arcite, even pausing to answer “Nay” (274)! to one of the her own questions. Still, the acrimony of the passage is quickly assuaged by the ensuing proclamation that Arcite will be “al foryive” (280) if he “come ayein, and yet be pleyn som day” (278). Despite Anelida’s frequent inclinations to despise the man who inflicted “adversite and grame” (276) on her, she continually stumbles back into expressing her affections and remains caught in-between an emotional battle. In fact, Anelida chooses to dub Arcite as “swete” multiple times throughout the poem. As expected, immediately after she addresses him by the name “swete” (256), she adds that Arcite is the “cause […] of [her] dedly adversyte” (257-258), thus jumping back to lamenting upon his “cruelte” (271). Later again, Anelida calls Arcite “swete” (317) and, interestingly enough, continues on to confesses that “[she] fare as doth the song of Chaunte-pleure (‘now sing, now weep’);/ For now [she] pleyne, and now [she] pleye” (320-321). Chaunte-pleure, according the explanatory notes in The Riverside Chaucer, “describes that which begins in joy ends in woe, or vice versa” (Benson, 993). This concept wonderfully corresponds to the conflicted structure of the previously discussed stanzas. Also, it is made clear that Anelida is aware of the duality and inconstancy of her emotions, especially since she explicitly states that “[her] wit is al aweye” (319). After bemoaning her romantic misfortunes, claiming that “in this world nis creature/ Wakynge in more discomfiture/ Then I, ne more sorowe endure” (325-327), she reveals that she envisions “[Arcite] before [her] stont, clad in asure,/ To profren eft and newe assure/ For to be trewe, and merci [her] to preye” (330-332). As stated in the explanatory notes in The Riverside Chaucer, “asure” or the color blue, is the
color of constancy (Benson, 993). The vision of Arcite’s figure standing before her, dressed in the color that represents constancy can represent Anelida’s hopes of Arcite being constant in his faith and love. A deeper evaluation, however, can produce an argument that the image embodies her hopes of achieving constancy in her own emotions and life. In the following stanza, Anelida elaborates on the image of the asure-clad Arcite by declaring that “The longe nyght this wonder sight [she] drye,/ And on the day for thilke afray [she] die” (333-334). Even the reality of her everyday life is inconstant; she revels in the wondrous vision through the night and suffers from fear during the day. Throughout the procession of the poem, Anelida seems to be fighting to stabilize and to maintain a balance of her emotions. She states in the Conclusion that “[she] shal never eft putten in balaunce/ [her] sekernes, ne lerne of love the lore” (343-344). She then claims to “singe […] here [her] destinee or chaunce” (348), “as the swan” (346) who “ayeins his deth shal singen his penaunce” (347). The rich display of opposing words and oxymoronic terms witnessed thus far in Anelida’s compleynt alludes to love’s ambiguities, complexities, and contradictions, and to the poem’s efforts to make sense of it all.